One of my bucket list items was travelling through the Russian winter on those famous trains that connect the biggest country in the world.
After postponing this year after year, this time, during the change of years from 2019 to 2020, there was finally a good opportunity lining up.
So first I did my research on how getting a ticket works and which stops should be interesting.
Since an average tourist visa for Russia only allows to stay for 30 days at a time, I needed to reduce the number of stops to be able to have enough time to see what some cities have to offer instead of rushing through all of them in a couple of hours. I used Real Russia to book my journey, since they have an awesome feature that shows all possible connections, stops and stays when you give them the first and last date of your journey, so you can simply click the different trains that interest you and receive an instant quote for the whole trip.
While booking tickets directly on the website of the Russian Railways website might have been cheaper, I was happily paying more for the customer service and the convenience that they registered all my tickets for me and sent me electronic vouchers.
Tickets for the trains go to sale around 90 days before departure, so to make sure you get the train, service class and seat you want, you should start your preparations early. Same goes for the visa. I made sure that I already had my visa in the passport before paying for my tickets, to avoid unnecessary surprises.
As most of the time I am only travelling in warmer areas, I quickly organized a warmer jacket before departing as even I understand, that travelling with a t-shirt in Siberia in December and January might not be the best idea.
So after celebrating abbreviated Christmas holidays with family in Germany, it was time to leave to Russia.
Day -2 (26.12.2019)
My Air Baltic flights brought me – after a short stop in Riga, Latvia – to the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. As I arrived in the middle of the night, I conveniently slept at a hotel directly at the airport, that allowed me immediate rest after landing.
Day -1 (27.12.2019)
Changing hotels to a hotel close to my departure train station for additional convenience, I had one more day before my first train would depart, which I used for some walks around Moscow. Since I had been there before, there was no rush to do a lot of sightseeing, instead I tried to get some interaction with locals to brush up my language skills and learn some more about the culture.
Day 0 (28.12.2019) Moscow – Kirov – Travel time: 13 hours
In the evening of that day, the adventure began. I was way too early at the Yaroslawskaya Station in Moscow because I was a little bit worried to find my train and the right compartment on time, which was totally unnecessary, since all announcements were comfortably made in English and Russian language.
To my surprise, train stations in Russia employ – sort of – the same security as you know it from airports (luggage x-ray, metal detectors), but as I learned over time, the scrutiny and motivation of the security staff changes significantly from one train station to another.
Long story short, I made it to my seat well on time and my train departed on my first segment to Kirov, where I should arrive the next morning.
Day 1 29.12.2019 Kirov-Yekaterinburg – Travel Time: 19 hours
With perfect punctuality I arrived at 11:44 in the small city of Kirov.
Since Kirov did not look too interesting when I prepared my trip but was conveniently located in a way, that the first segment on the train would not be too long (to be able to getting used to it), I had planned not to stay overnight, but to leave with a night train to my next destination.
Using dating apps to find local guides (and company) along the way, I luckily met Maria in Kirov, who gave me a short walk just around the blocks of the main train station telling me a litte bit about the history of the city and other interesting things about Russia in general.
But after a few hours it was time to move on. Entering the train station again, there was no security this time. While all of the equipment was there, and even powered on, there was no staff in sight, so everyone could simply walk through the detectors unchecked.
Maria helped me to find the right compartment in my next train, and it was time to depart to Yekaterinburg, the city where I should spend New Years Eve.
Day 2 30.12.2019 Yekaterinburg
Again arriving around noon at my destination it was time to check in my first hotel along the way, since I would stay here until 02. January 2020.
Not having read the description of my hotel very thoroughly, I learned that the bathroom was shared on the hallway and not in the room, which was a little inconvenient, but since the reservation was non-refundable anyway I just lived with it. Interestingly, during my full stay in this hotel I never saw another guest, and it was totally silent, so maybe I had been the only visitor to spend the change of the year in this hotel.
In Yekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city of the Russian Federation, I applied the same approach to connect to the local population and the magic swipe app connected me with Irina this time.
After a short walk through the cold (-25C) city, the evening ended with a nice drink in a bar, where her English and my Russian skills improved with every drink ;-).
Day 3 31.12.2019 Yekaterinburg
Since I made no plan on how to spend the New Year and had no luck in connecting with locals on that day, my start into 2020 was quite calm, even a little lonely, but as I also did not feel to party again after a long night before, I just stayed in my empty hotel watching the fireworks from a distance.
Day 4 01.01.2020 Yekaterinburg
A new year always presents some challenges immediately, so this day was dedicated to getting some work done while everybody else was still sleeping and trying to cure their high intake of alcohol during the previous night.
In the evening, I had the opportunity to meet Irina again, having a good time together.
Yekaterinburg, being the fourth largest city of Russia, is a very interesting place to be and impressed me with its vibe.
Day 5 02.01.2020 Yekaterinburg – Novosibirsk – Travel Time: 23,5 hours
It was time to say goodbye to Yekaterinburg and Irina and get on my next train, this time travelling nearly 24 hours to my next target Novosibirsk. While there was virtually no security control in Kirov, the guys in Yekaterinburg took it to the other extreme and performed really thorough searches which nearly ended in me taking off my jeans in the cold to demonstrate that I was not carrying something dangerous.
Later I saw from a distance, that one of the guards had some kind of remote control, to let the metal detector beep, even if nothing dangerous was coming through, just to confuse passengers and raise the importance of his job.
Day 6 03.01.2020 Novosibirsk
Since my preparation for the cold weather was not as good as it should have been, I caught quite a cold here, which lead to my decision to skip long walks through the cold and only visit a few things between my hotel and the train station of Novosibirsk.
Day 7 04.01.2020 Novosibirsk – Krasnoyarsk – Travel Time: 12 hours
Thus I probably missed out on this city, but I did not want to risk getting really sick on the journey.
So I spent several hours before departure already in the train station and waited to my next leg, taking me to Krasnoyarsk.
Day 8 05.01.2020 Krasnoyarsk
Arriving in the city of Krasnoyarsk, I first made to to my hotel to be able to get some rest, since the last night on the train was not so convenient.
I started my usual approach again to make some connections along the way, and negotiated with Tatjana, that we would meet on the Christmas market later that day. Sadly, after I made my way there, she did not show up, but that did not make my visit to the market and a short stroll through the city less enjoyable. Happiness always depends on yourself, not on the performance of others.
Day 9 06.01.2020 Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk – Travel Time: 17 hours
Around noon it was time to get back on the train and move on to the next city along the way. Irkutsk.
On this leg it was my first time having booked a second class cabin instead of the previous third class travel. On that train, the only difference between the two classes was the fact, that second class had a door that separated the compartment of four beds from the rest. Since I had an upper bunk on that trip, I noticed, that from up there you cannot really enjoy the view, so in case you consider booking second class and want to look at nature passing by, always go for the lower bed.
Day 10 07.01.2020 Irkutsk
In the early morning I finally arrived in Irkutsk, and again took the first half of the day off in the hotel. My original plan was, to travel a big part of the distance on the trains during the night, to be able to see more during the day, but my original plans did not consider, that the quality of sleep on the train is not always that great, so this fact, combined with a micro jet lag of usually an hour leads to being tired the next morning and you lose half a day at the new destination anyway.
In Irkutsk I was not successful to get in touch with the locals so I was on my own to discover what this city has to offer. This made me doing some online research on “things to do” and I quickly discovered that Irkutsk has a green line that is painted on the sidewalk, that leads past all the attractions the city has to offer.
I started walking along that line, but did not make it all around, because that would have taken several hours and temperatures were really cold and it was very windy, so I took a shortcut, leaving out some probably great places and ended up in the 130th quarter of the city, which is a quite artificial place completely tailored to tourists from China.
For the first time during my travels it felt that I am in a touristic place and thee are more foreigners around me than local people.
Close to the 130th quarter is a quite impressive church called Krestovozdvizhenskaya Tserkov which had at my time of visit some amazing religious art totally made out of ice.
On my way back to my hotel, I passed the statue of Emperor Alexander III, who was the inventor of the idea of the Transsib. For a strange reason, every time when I tried to take a photo of that statue, my phone instantly rebooted, while taking pictures of everything around worked perfectly fine. So I missed the opportunity to take a selfie with the person that is somewhat responsible why I was at this place.
Day 11 08.01.2020 Irkutsk
With all that travelling and sightseeing during the last days, this day was entirely dedicated to catch up on some work and preparing for my longest leg of the journey, that would put me on a train for nearly three days.
Day 12 09.01.2020 – Day 14 11.01.2020 Irkutsk – Khabarovsk – Travel Time: 63 hours
This longest segment of my route should be the most interesting but also most “boring” at the same time.
Again, having booked a second class upper bed (in the impression that it would be easier to sleep up there), lead to limited views of nature out of the window, which I first thought would be a problem, but considering that a lot of the empty land that train would go through would look “the same” anyway, it was bearable to not see everything.
63 hours are a long time, and even with a little list of things to do, I ran out of activities very quickly. Since my brain does not like the vibrations that come with train travel, reading or typing was not really a long-term activity to avoid feeling dizzy, so in the end I spent most of the time with philosophical thoughts about life, the universe and everything, catching up with contacts only during the short stops at the train stations. While there is usually LTE internet in every little town we have passed, even the Russian cell network operators did not consider to put antennas in the area where nobody lives, so the connection was too spotty for serious communications.
Day 15 12.01.2020 Arriving in Khabarovsk
Arriving in Khabarovsk, the only thing I was looking for was my hotel, which was luckily only a three minute walk from the train station. And, to recover from the long train ride, I decided to skip exploring the city and get back on track as well with sleep and personal hygiene as with work.
Day 16 13.01.2020 Khabarovsk – Vladivostok – Travel Time 11,5 hours
My train for the last leg would depart in the evening, so I spent the whole day in the very stylish lobby area of my hotel getting things done. While I could have used that time to discover more about Khabarovsk, the lack of connection to a local and the amount of work that had piled up spoke against it. Finally, at around 20:00 in the evening I made my way to the last train I should board in Russia on this trip.
Expecting a smooth and silent ride like on the other segments, I was not prepared for the fact, that I would share my compartment (where I finally had a bottom bunk) with three Russian soldiers. As soon as boarding was completed the train attended left without being able to convince us to buy some souvenirs, one of the soldiers locked the compartment door from the inside and pulled out a bottle of scotch whiskey, while another one spread a lot of food on the small table. After they quickly found out that I was not really fluent in their language, google translate served to invite me to join them drinking and their conversation. That first bottle was empty very quickly and one of the soldiers was sent to buy vodka in the dining car.
After being away for quite a long time, he came back, having fulfilled his mission and drinking continued. While drinking so much alcohol in such a short time started to have quite some effects on me, I could not notice any change on my three new friends.
As soon as the last sip of vodka was gone, they quickly cleaned up everything, turned off the light, and it probably was one of the shortest times I needed to fall asleep in the last years.
Day 17 14.01.2020 Vladivostok
I made it. In the early morning hours of this day, my train arrived at its final destination: Vladivostok.
Arriving here felt a litte unreal and the many days on the train felt like they have been already in a distant past.
My first impression was, that there was a lot of more security and military around the train station, so taking a quick selfie of me together with the train station was not that easy, because I needed to make sure that I do not have any of them on my pictures.
Looking at a map, it seemed that my hotel should be quite close to the train station, so I decided to walk that distance, which turned out to be a good half hour. My new hotel already in sight, my phone suddenly turned off because of the low temperatures. While I knew that phones do not work when they overheat, finding out the same for low temperatures was a new experience. Luckily I could already see my hotel and the receptionist was able to check me in even without showing my booking confirmation.
What caught my attention, not just in the hotel but in nearly every place of the city, was that all signs seemed to be in Russian and Chinese, and there were a lot of Chinese tourists again. Actually, it looked like I was the only non-Chinese foreigner in that hotel.
I would now spend my next week in this city.
I had allotted so much extra time to conquer any delays on my trip, but, to my surprise, Russian trains are meticulously on time.
Day 18 – 22 15.01.2020 – 19.01.2020 Vladivostok
Finding out, what I could do in this city my first attention was lead to a place which the locals call “the end of the world”. A little lighthouse that marks the end of Russia and the beginning of the pacific ocean.
In summer you can only walk to this lighthouse during low tide, but now in winter, when the ocean is frozen, it is easy to go there at all times.
For some other experiences, I relied again on getting in touch with the locals, and I connected with Natalia, who would spend two days with me together discovering the city.
All in all, Vladivostok is a nice and friendly looking medium sized city, one, that if I would need to settle could be on my short list, at least for the summer.
Day 23 20.01.2020 Vladivostok
My trip is coming to an end, and shortly after this day ends, my flight to Beijing will take off. I continue to finish up this article right now in the public waiting area of Vladivostok airport, trying to keep as many memories of this amazing time.
I learned so much about Russia as a country and Russians as people, individually from all the locals I met along the way, as about the nation that they form. There are a lot of misunderstandings between cultures in our heads, and I was very happy to have the opportunity to experience country and people for a longer time myself.
In the end, I am glad that I did the adventure of riding the Transsib, although it was completely different than I had imagined before.
Most importantly, I made friends along the way, friends to whom I will definitely return another day, but then most likely by plane 😉